Where you from? Part 2


It is difficult not to draw comparisons as you wander round the world. Sure, each country may be having its own set of problems and negatives which the traveler journeying to that land may not be able to observe or experience in the short time he or she is there. But nevertheless, the experienced eye is able to see and assimilate a lot even in a few hours, leave alone a few days. For example, coming from Karachi it was impossible not to appreciate that the electricity did not go off once in the four days I spent in Saigon. Or notice that in spite of being crowded and noisy, Saigon was admirably clean and completely devoid of plastic bags or litter in the streets and devoid too, of the inevitable scavengers that litter attracts – feral cats and dogs and crows and kites.

Was this because the Saigon municipality was doing a remarkable job? Perhaps, but I think it was equally if not more due to a general sense of civic responsibility in the population that just believes in proper disposal of their litter as a way of life. As it should be in any civilized society.

Dong Khoi and its environs is the definite place to base yourself in Saigon. There is no shortage of hotels here, from fairly basic looking two-star budget places in cramped buildings to five-star plus deluxe establishments taking up whole blocks and offering a level of service that makes you wish you could stay there forever. Within a few hundred steps are popular tourist attractions like the Notre Dame Cathedral built in 1880 and the Opera House, a host of cozy restaurants, coffee shops and bars, the Parkson Mall and a hundred other shops retailing handicrafts, gift items and clothing among other goods. All at prices that make your tourist dollar go much further than it would in most other countries of the world today.

I was amazed at the number of famous up-market brands that have taken up home in Saigon. To name a few – Armani, Burberry, Calvin Klein, D&G, Louis Vuitton, Porsche Design.

Of course as in other tourist centers anywhere in the world, there are the inevitable street vendors and touts offering all kinds of services and special deals, for which a surprising number of tourists from all over the world fall for. But again, unlike a lot of other cities I have had the opportunity to visit across five continents, the Saigon street sellers are not aggressive, and a firm no will make most of them give up on you and try their luck with someone else. Somebody though ought to tell them that trying to sell postcards is a losing proposition in this age of e-mails when the iconic ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard of yester-decades has become all but redundant.

I cannot end without mentioning another very striking feature of Saigon. Does anyone know any other city anywhere where there are not a few dozen, but literally hundreds of shops and galleries selling art, as in sketches and paintings? I had really meant to find out the mystery behind this but never gone got down to it. Many of the shops were in fact also studios, where artists were busy on canvases mounted on easels.

Unfortunately time did not permit touring the rest of Vietnam on this trip, or even going to the capital, Hanoi, with its adjacent ‘must see’ Hailong Bay that houses a thousand islands. But I intend to do this the next time round, landing in Hanoi, doing Halong and then taking a train down to Saigon, stopping off in other places along the way. And if you are inspired enough to spend a length of time in this beautiful country with friendly people, they are willing to pay up to three thousand dollars a month in Saigon to English language teachers! Now surely that’s an exciting and financially lucrative enough incentive to head off to Vietnam, for anyone who speaks the Queen’s language fluently and has the qualifications to teach it!

SAIGON – quick tips

Where to stay?
Any 3 star to 5 star hotel in the Dong Khoi area, depending on your budget. But book in advance as tourism to Vietnam has really picked up and is increasing even more all the time. Today, you will normally get the best rates online, rather than through a travel agent or a even a tour operator, unless you are a very large group.

How many days?
In Saigon itself I would say a three nights and four days stay is the optimum. Late afternoon on the fourth day could be departure for Hanoi.

3 Must Do things:

  • Guided half day city tour with English speaking guide, available from most hotels. This way you ensure first that you do not miss on any of the major national attractions, and second, you get a full dose of history and folklore, and key facts and figures.
  • Whole day tour to Mekong Delta. The Mekong is one of the great rivers of this planet, originating in and traversing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, before discharging into the South China Sea. It has an incredibly rich history and has been for countless centuries the virtual life-blood of tens if not hundreds of millions of people living in South-east Asia.
  • Walk around the Dong Khoi area, exploring especially the side streets, both during the daytime and in the evening after the city lights come on.

What to buy?;

  •  Art. Specifically paintings. Browse the innumerable galleries. Just go for the one painting that immediately strikes you.
  • Hand embroidery. Exquisite and inexpensive. Table cloths, place mats, napkins, bed linen, etc.
  • Hand-crafted replicas of sailing ships. The largest I saw for sale was about 6 feet long. You would need a very large hall for that! But there is a wide range of sizes available and the detailed workmanship is remarkable.
  • Designer clothes. Armani, Calvin Klein, Savile Row, Lacoste and a host of other designer brand clothes are far cheaper here than in other cities like Kuala Lumpur or even Bangkok or Dubai.

Sufficiently motivated to make tracks for Vietnam? I assure you that you will be delighted! Sometime later this year, I will share with you another article on my Vietnam visit; a thought-provoking perspective on the people of this lovely country which is determined to rise high from the ashes of a tormented history.

3 Responses to Where you from? Part 2

  1. Naheed says:

    As always informative and interesting read. Speaking of the problems faced in Karachi,even people from other cities of Pakistan find themselves comparing its poor conditions with their own cities. For example, a friend from Bahawalpur shared his experience of visiting Karachi after 15 years and he found it to be even worse than what it was 15 years before. In a nutshell both the visits didn’t make any impression and he found Bahawalpur much better and cleaner than Karachi.

    Looking forward to reading even more about The Travels of Bob Bhai.

  2. Hunaid says:

    For those who might be traveling to Viet Nam, I would like to add a note of caution from someone who has traveled there and my caution would be fully endorsed by at least half a dozen other folks who I personally know. There is good and bad in every part of the world and as a general rule, people in urban areas will try and take advantage of situations far more than one in rural areas or small cities.
    Where I have found the people in Cambodia, Laos, Korea and Thailand extremely helpful and quite honest, as a general rule, I cannot say that about Viet Nam. The smile of a vendor will vanish just as easily if they feel that you are on to them. Even bus drivers will try and exploit you if they feel that you are carrying strong currencies like the Dollar. This is not just for buying art and souvenirs, but even when asking for basic services.
    Exploitation of tourists is second only to what I have encountered in Greece and Turkey. As a Vietnamese friend of mine for the past 27 years has explained to me (he came to US as “boat people”), that this culture has come about from years of Indochine conflicts, the US invasion and the Communist take over – all these accumulated to the degradation of their moral base which is, generally speaking, a bit more intact in other Buddhist countries.

    • Zohare Ali Shariff says:

      Mr. Tambawala presents his point of view, based as he says on his own experience. In the interest of fairness I have not ‘censored’ his comment and have shared it in full. My own response to is that perhaps he is right in his comparative observation. But really if you come across as a typical tourist in most countries and cities of the world, you are opening yourself up to some sort of exploitation. I myself have experienced attempts at conning me in otherwise fabulous cities as diverse as Hong Kong, Istanbul and Rio. The Scandinavian countries are perhaps among the few which are more or less free of people attempting to deprive you of your money or other belongings.

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